Monday, January 22, 2007

What we miss as radio dies

Marc Fisher is an erratic Washington Post columnist, clearly out of his element when he starts talking about things beyond his immediate sphere of knowledge (soccer, the Virginia suburbs, etc.). But at his best, he's very good. And he's best when writing about radio, which he did in this week's Post Magazine, taking us behind the scenes of a focus group.

It's mildly depressing, yes, to see that actual human beings can't stand Motown, and that's why Big 100.3 no longer plays it. You may find yourself shifting blame from faceless radio programmers and big companies to your fellow human being and his tin ear.

Highly recommended read.

The timing, as it turns out, was particularly interesting. One day later, which would be today, the 11th-ranked radio station in Washington flipped formats to the "George" format -- '70s, '80s, '90s, whatever.

Here are the odd aspects of the deal:

- A radio station chain (Bonneville) is cooperating with a public-radio giant (WETA). Bonneville is basically handing over its music library, and there will be more cooperation down the road.

- WETA is junking a talk format (one or two local shows, lots of NPR/PRI syndication, BBC, etc.) that it picked up only a couple of years ago, somewhat controversially.

- Have we mentioned that the format in question here is classical?

Here are the sad aspects of the deal:

- The station that flipped, WGMS, has been broadcasting classical music for nearly 60 years.

- WETA is flipping from one extreme to another. They've gone from classical with a little talk to all-talk to all-classical, aside from hourly NPR news bulletins and a one-hour simulcast of NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which is produced nearby. (I once interviewed at NewsHour.) The reactions at WETA's blog hint at the resulting mess -- some people are thrilled that WETA is back and claim WGMS never played their favorites, but a lot of people don't like being jerked around. And WETA won't even play the NPR standards like All Things Considered and Prairie Home Companion -- though the folks at WAMU are surely thrilled to be Washington's only over-the-air source of such programming. (To folks who'll miss all that programming -- get an iPod. NPR and PRI do great podcasts.)

- For amusement, read about WETA's decision to flip two years ago, then read today's press release.

- We've had WGMS on the radio in the baby's room. It's a soothing, friendly presence -- the music, the announcers, the ads for things like investing in gold. There's an atmosphere to it you just don't get on faceless XM. (And we only have one XM receiver, which we're not lugging into the baby's room.) I didn't just listen to it because it's classical. Even as a music major, I think classical these days is basically background music. I listened to it because it's local, friendly classical. A couple of commenters on WETA's blog make the same point -- they'll miss the WGMS announcers.

- Twelve staffers -- many of them Washington radio institutions -- are in limbo, though they will have opportunities to interview at Bonneville. (To do what? It's hard to picture the same soothing voices that introduced Bach chattering between cuts from Seal and Poison, the artists Mrs. MMM heard back-to-back as she listened in shock this afternoon.) And what happens to the folks who produced WETA's news program, Intersection? And shouldn't a powerful public radio station in the nation's capital produce more content?

- WGMS was a great station, well-liked. The demographics are just wrong.

- Just listen to the signoff. It's heartbreaking, even as they spin it as a good day for classical music because it gets a more powerful signal and so forth.

The demographics are the killer. I'm a good little capitalist and all, but seeing another demonstration that advertisers (and therefore programmers) don't care about you when your brand loyalties are established bodes ill for everyone's future, doesn't it?

Hope I die before I get old, I suppose. Oh wait -- the three classic rock stations don't play that song anymore. Too old.

3 comments:

David Gaines said...

This is truly a weird deal, but sudden overnight shifts in radio formats are just the norm now in Washington DC radio. Keeping classical music on the radio in DC is a big plus, and something Dan Snyder couldn't care less about, I'm sure. However, having said that, if WETA is simply going to keep spitting out WGMS' creaky old playlist - yuck. I was told by a composer colleague of mine (I'm a composer) that WGMS once "dared" to play something by that avant garde radical, Manuel de Falla (whose music is as palatable as the 20th century gets), and a crotchety old lady called them up to complain about "that noise."

So.....yes, classical music on the radio has lapsed into bland wallpaper, but that is hardly everything that's out there in the classical music world. There are people out there who write classical music who are still alive, you know (he said as he raised his hand), and people who

I'm talking about music by John Adams, Philip Glass, John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Tania Leon, the Kronos Quartet, etc. etc. etc. You'd think WETA could find some place in their schedule for at least SOME of that music, particularly if they want to attract a younger audience. Otherwise, if they just keep cranking out the 18th and 19th century hits, WGMS-style, then I guess sources like satellite radio, internet streaming stations, and podcasts are the way to go, and it's time to say goodbye to broadcast radio.

bdure said...

And how about the works of Stephen Jaffe! (He was my composition teacher.)

I read somewhere today that WGMS' collection would be added to a WETA collection that still existed. So the library should be substantial.

Their schedule page has no details yet. I seem to recall the old WETA setting aside the occasional program block for newer fare, but I may be wrong.

I dislike most 20th century music I've heard, but the occasional piece is quite good. I still have fond memories of rocking Baldwin Auditorium with an Elliott Carter tympani solo.

It's really a shame that we don't have a choice. I'd think if WETA was a typical NPR station (classical with a few of the syndicated news shows, plus one or two local shows) and WGMS remained intact, that would be the ideal solution.

I don't know what Bonneville is doing here other than ticking off the community in pursuit of slightly younger listeners who already have loyalties to two other stations both drawing lower ratings than WGMS. (The Snyder deal fell through, by the way, though I suppose it could always be revived.)

Off to check out that flute-and-tuba piece on your site ...

Lex said...

I'm sorry, but as a longtime radio disc jockey I can assure you that there are, in fact, no "actual human beings who can't stand Motown." I suspect, but cannot prove, that any such notion is merely GOP propaganda.

That said, I can think of one good reason to say goodbye to broadcast radio (along with many reasons not to), and that is that it would get the federal government out of the commercial-radio content business.

David: "sudden overnight shifts in radio formats are just the norm now in Washington DC radio" -- and pretty much everywhere else as well They've been happening in this not-top-50-and-barely-top-100 market, as well as two Top 50 markets within 2 hours' drive, for more than a decade.

There are some practical reasons. My favorite is that most of the air talent tends to get fired with a major format change, so the owners want to just do it suddenly so that the talent doesn't bitch about it on-air before it happens. Stations usually have few or no live voice breaks for the first several days of the new format, at least -- sometimes because they just want the new format to soak in, and sometimes because they haven't yet lined up new talent and are just sticking some $6-an-hour kid in there to run the board until they do.

At least, that's my experience. Not that I am bitter. ;-)